I have always loved to learn about fascinating people who have lived extraordinary lives. Few can say that the Duchess of Alba isn’t one such person.
Over the years, I’ve seen her pictures in magazines and on the internet, and her striking looks have always left me curious. Who is she? Why is she famous?
It turns out there’s a dearth of knowledge, and I had no idea how famous – or immensely wealthy – this mysterious lady actually was.
And behind all the plastic surgery, billions of dollars, marriages, and toyboys, there is an incredible life story that left me stunned…
A luxurious lifestyle, plastic surgeries, marriages to much younger men, and never afraid to say her opinion: there are many things people associate with Cayetana Fitz-James, also known as the Duchess of Alba.
But to understand the European aristocrat who became known as one of the most fascinating royals of all, we must start with her difficult childhood.
To begin with, Spanish-born Cayetana inherited most of her titles when her mother tragically died from tuberculosis in 1934, aged only 33.
Cayetana was just eight years old when her beloved mother was killed by the infectious disease that had become an epidemic in Europe. The memories she had of her mom were vague – of her always in bed or lying in the garden to get some fresh air.
Despite her royal status and privileges, the young Duchess of Alba had a troublesome upbringing, and one marked with tragedy. The positive thing was that Cayetana had a very good relationship with her father, Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart y Falcó, 17th Duke of Alba.
However, her youth was loaded with turbulence due to circumstances beyond Cayetana’s control. The 1930s were a very dramatic time in Spain’s history. For example, her father had to flee to France when the Spanish Royal Family was forced into exile in 1931. That same year, the monarchy in Spain was abolished, and a democratic republic was established.
Cayetana with her father in London
Cayetana accompanied her father to Paris but never liked the French capital. She suffered an attack of appendicitis and the memories from her years in France weren’t happy ones.
It got better when her father moved to England to become an ambassador for the Spanish government. Cayetana received an excellent education in London and learned to speak English, French, German, and Italian.
She was also introduced to contacts within the inner circles of London’s socialite sphere. It was in London that Cayetana befriended the young Princess Margaret.
Cayetana descended directly from the English King James II; that, of course, opened doors. On several occasions, she visited her relative, Sir Winston Churchill. Cayetana also had Queen Elizabeth II as a playmate.
But it was probably her friendship with Princess Margaret that became most important to Cayetana – both women would be famous for their rebellious manner and for the breaking of royal norms.
But before Cayetana became known for her odd romances, she had a stable marriage. At the age of 21, she wed Pedro Luis Martínez de Irujo y Artacoz, a man who came from a noble Spanish family.
Their lavish wedding in 1947 was world news – it was described by the international press as “the most expensive wedding in the world”. Thousands of people lined the streets when Cayetana arrived by a horse-drawn carriage to the mighty cathedral of Seville. According to reports, the wedding cost 20 million pesetas, equivalent to roughly $10,000,000 in 2015.
After the wedding, the couple began a six-month honeymoon. Among other things, Cayetana traveled to Hollywood, where she became acquainted with many iconic celebrities of the 1940s. She met, among others, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, and a young Marilyn Monroe.
“She did not make much of an impression on me,” the Spanish aristocrat would later say about Monroe.
But Cayetana loved Marlene Dietrich, who struck her as a “veritable goddess”.
Back home in Spain, Cayetana continued to keep in touch with high-profile celebrities. She hosted Audrey Hepburn and also spent time with Jackie Kennedy when she visited Spain.
All told, Cayetana had six children with her first husband. Unfortunately, Pedro died suddenly in 1972, just 53 years old. Cayetana was left heartbroken and lived alone for six years as she coped with the loss.
But Cayetana would find love again. When she married Jesús Aguirre y Ortiz de Zarate, it sent shockwaves through Spanish society. Many looked down on Jesús, an academic and former pastor. He was not considered noble enough and was also 11 years younger than Cayetana. He was labeled a gold digger and a toyboy, but Cayetana didn’t listen to the critics. In fact, she called the years with Jésus the happiest of her life.
“Some people will not forgive me for having married an intelligent man. We are very happy together; we do not need anyone else,” Cayetana told People in 1979.
Alongside the criticized marriage, the Duchess continued to appear everywhere and anywhere. The worldwide media darling refused to sit in her glamorous palace in Seville, and Cayetana was often seen at various events and magazines.
Her grey, curly hair, colorful design dresses, and hippie-bohemian clothes stood out in the otherwise strict world of European royalties.
Unfortunately, the Duchess would experience grief once again when her second husband passed away in 2001. Cayetana was left alone and devastated; many thought she would live as a widow for the rest of her life.
But Cayetana had other plans. She soon found a man who would become her most controversial husband yet.
When Cayetana married public servant Alfonso Diez Carabantes, people were shocked yet again. Cayetana’s children couldn’t believe it and urged their mother to change her mind.
“I do not know why my children are causing problems. We are not hurting anyone. Alfonso does not want anything, he renounced everything. He does not want anything but me,” Cayetana said.
Even the Spanish king indulged in Cayetana’s love life. Alfonso was 25 years younger than Cayetana, which led Spanish King Juan Carlos to openly call him a gold-digger. It is exceptionally unusual for a king to speak publicly about this type of thing, but it does say something about the ripples that the marriage created.
Then, the House of Alba issued a statement in 2008 saying that the relationship “was based on a long friendship and there are no plans to marry”
This, interestingly, was only a way to buy some time. In the end, there was still going to be a wedding.
But first, Cayetana made sure to pledge her children their rightful inheritance – a wealth of fortunes, including fine palaces in Spain and valuable paintings by some of the most famous artists in the world.
Alfonso also had to promise that he would not claim any of the Duchess’s fortune. In October 2011, the bells rang again in Seville as Cayetana and Alfonso tied the knot at the Palacio de las Dueñas. The ceremony was relatively small, but hundreds of curious people waited outside.
Unsurprisingly, the Duchess wanted to give something back and performed a quick few steps of the flamenco dance to the audience’s cheers.
According to reports, the marriage was happy. Naturally, Cayetana had a hard time keeping up – she was, after all, 85 years old when she and Alfonso tied the knot. Only three years after the wedding, Cayetana passed away. She died on November 19, 2014, at the age of 88.
That the colorful Duchess had made an impression is an understatement – over a thousand people came to express their condolences when Cayetana Duchess’ body was laid in repose at the Town Hall in Seville.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, Cayetana was the most titled aristocrat in the world when she passed away from pneumonia, with over 40 hereditary titles.
In one of the first public portraits of the Duchess, we see a confident young woman sitting straight with an aura of perfection. She just oozes royalty and has an envious natural beauty.
No wonder people noticed her, and there is no doubt that Cayetana was very beautiful when she was young. But just like everyone else, a noble lady ages as well.
There was a certain dignity in aging with her silvery hair, but Cayetana chose to go under the knife in a bid to maintain her youthfulness.
Her fondness for plastic surgery would only make her more famous, and The Duchess made her face tighter to hide wrinkles. The Daily Mail described her as a “Pekingese with Botox” and highlighted her as an extreme example of what can go wrong in the world of plastic surgery.
The one-of-a-kind aristocrat denied that she had used surgery to remain young-looking. Likewise, Cayetana explicitly refuted the claim that she sought help to look more beautiful, and ignored gossip regarding her unusual look.
However, most people agree that she used plastic surgery for many years.
As a friend told The Daily Mail: “She clearly took it too far.”
According to the British newspaper, Cayetana had her lips filled, her cheeks plumped, her wrinkles removed, and her brow lifted.
According to the Spanish media, The Duchess of Alba had an estimated fortune somewhere between €600 million and €3.5 billion. As the head of one of Spain’s oldest aristocratic families, she controlled a colossal fortune and owned several castles across Spain.
Her most famous property was the Liria Palace in Madrid, built around 1770. The neoclassical palace was where Cayetana was born and is believed to be the home to 249 oil paintings by artists such as Rembrandt and Rubens.
But despite her gigantic fortune, the Duchess insisted she was not particularly rich.
“I have a lot of artworks, but I can’t eat them, can I?” she said.
No matter what you think of her characteristic looks, her young spouses, and her rebellious lifestyle, Cayetana’s story sure is fascinating, and she obviously made a big impression during her lifetime. Rest in peace.